In the first of a recurring, slightly self-indulgent series, the Edinburgh Coffee House is proud to present the Essential Popular Science Library. The standard list article rules apply, so only one book per author, and we’ve tried to provide as broad a range of subject matter as possible. If you disagree with the selection, or think we’ve missed out any classics then feel free to vent your rage in the comments section…
Stephen Hawking – The Universe In A Nutshell
Whilst not as famous as Hawking’s signature work, A Brief History of Time, this book uses a far broader canvas to introduce readers to the often baffling world of physics. Whilst many readers failed to get beyond the first few chapters of his earlier piece, The Universe in a Nutshell is designed to be a far more accessible introduction.
Full of colour illustrations, Hawking’s books employs an easy to navigate structure, allowing readers to select chapters at will without losing the main thread of the piece. This is a book about relativity, quantum theory, imaginary time and several other areas at the forefront of theoretical physics. However, Hawking’s natural talent as a writer makes him the ideal candidate to present these ideas to the curious beginner.
Richard Dawkins – The Blind Watchmaker
Although his writings on faith and religion have made him a household name, Dawkins is truly in his element when discussing evolution. The Blind Watchmaker starts out with a simple hypothesis, that a complicated object such as a watch, or a human being, must logically have had a designer.
The rest of the book in a masterclass in evolutionary biology, with Dawkins showing his real talents as a confident, clear and often humorous writer. Using countless examples from many aspects of the natural world, Dawkins shows exactly how an organ as complex as the human eye could come into being through gradual evolution, to the dismay of creationists worldwide.
Bill Bryson – A Short History Of Nearly Everything
Taking his cue (and his title) from A Brief History of Time, Bryson takes a break from travel writing to tackle the very biggest questions in all of science. Having realised on a transatlantic flight how little the average person knows about the Earth and the universe, Bryson set himself the task of finding out the answers, or at least the best guesses, to questions about the age of the universe, the weight of the Earth and the nature of gravity.
Like all the best writers, Bryson tempers the sometimes heavy themes with wit and clarity, with soundbites from some of the finest minds in their respective fields. Fans of the Scottish Enlightenment will find James Hutton‘s theories on the age of the Earth well represented, but Bryson’s work should satisfy any curious mind.
Ben Goldacre – Bad Science
Goldacre, a qualified GP and science writer for the Guardian, uses his first book to vent his rage at the various shady practices of pseudoscience, dodgy trials, media scares and public misunderstanding of the scientific method.
Always humorous and extremely articulate, Goldacre expresses his frustration at the lamentable quality of scientific journalism and the ensuing damage to public confidence. Chapters are dedicated to the MMR scare, the ridiculous myth of homeopathy and the insidious Gillian McKeith, now as qualified as Goldacre’s dead cat.
It is impossible to read a newspaper story about a scientific report the same way after reading this book. The experience could be likened to seeing the world through a pair of x-ray glasses, making it impossible to recommend this book too highly.
Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan, perhaps best known for his work on mythology, uses this book to muse on the current state of scientific thought. Like Ben Goldacre, Sagan is no fan of pseudoscience, and takes the opportunity to entertain us with his own childhood experiences, the newspaper morgues, UFO stories and various tals of nonsense from psychics to snake oil merchants.
Along the way, Sagan debunks alien abduction, faith-healing and spiritual channelling, makes the argument that science does not necessarily destroy spirituality and provides his patented “baloney detection kit” for analysing political, social, and religious issues.
Sam Kean – The Disappearing Spoon
In this book, Sam Kean takes us on a whirlwind tour of the periodic table, skipping from element to element and providing colourful histories and applications for each one.
Like Bryson, Kean sets himself a hefty task, but accomplishes it in style. We are regaled with tales of the discovery of elements like helium, the use of lithium to subdue mood swings in manic depressives and the man-made creations at the bottom end of the periodic table.
Kean’s work is an enlightening journey through chemistry, and a fascinating new way to look at the world around us.
Jay Burreson and Penny Lee Couteur – Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History
Taking a similar chemistry-focused starting point to Sam Kean, Burreson and Couteur weave their tale through several historical events, looking at whether something as simple as chemistry could change the world.
They cite the example of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign, when tin buttons fastened everything from the greatcoats of Napoleon’s officers to the trousers of his foot soldiers. Unfortunately for the French general, when temperatures drop to an extreme level, tin crumbles into powder. Were Napoleon’s soldiers fatally weakened because the buttons of their uniforms fell apart in the Russian winter?
This book tells the stories of seventeen molecules that, like the tin buttons, greatly influenced the course of history, providing the impetus for early exploration and making possible the early modern voyages of discovery.
Richard Feynman – Six Easy Pieces
Richard P. Feynman was one of the twentieth centuries brightest thinkers. He taught at Cornell and the California Institute of Technology and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics.
A gifted communicator, Feynman inspired a generation of students with his unorthodox, enthusiastic style of teaching. Six Easy Pieces draws from his celebrated text Lectures on Physics, revealing Feynman’s distinctive style whilst introducing the essentials of physics to the general reader. Topics explored include atoms, the fundamentals of physics and its relation to other sciences, the theory of gravitation and quantum behaviour.
For aspiring physics students or just enthusiastic laymen, this book comes highly recommended.
Stephen Jay Gould – The Mismeasure of Man
In this work, Gould exposes the fatal flaws in ranking people according to their supposed gifts and limits by discussing the development of the theory of limits and by re-evaluating the data on which it is based.
The author is keen to assert that this book is not an attack on I.Q. testing per se, nor a plea for a cease in the scientific investigation of the mind. Instead, Gould offers a well-informed attack on the potentially dangerous doctrine that intelligence can be reduced to a single, inheritable, directly quantifiable factor which ignores environmental and social factors.
By straying from his usual stamping ground of evolution, Gould produces a work that is both well-written and a refreshing change for admirers of his work.
The title says it all, really. Fans of theoretical physics, or interested science fiction fans, will know hyperspace as the realm which enables a spaceship to a physics-defying shortcut to the outer shores of the Galaxy in less time than it takes to fly cross the Pacific. Recently, however, physicists have discovered that a ten-dimensional hyperspace may actually exist, albeit at a scale almost too small to comprehend. In spite of its size, hyperspace may be the basis on which all the forces of nature are united.
Kaku’s is the first book for a general audience on hyperspace, one of the most exciting developments in modern science. The author describes the universe not merely in the four spacetime dimensions set out by Hawking and Einstein, but rather as a ten-dimensional hyperspace. No longer the domain of the science fiction writer, hyperspace may now be the only kind of space in which the laws of modern physics can be satisfactorily explained. Significantly, Einstein’s unfulfilled dream, the unification of all the forces of nature, may now be within our grasp.
So, have we missed any of your favourites? Let us know in the comments below!